Man of ‘Action!’
By William Weber
Gary Olsen knows he is in a unique position—that there simply aren’t many people like him in the K-12 universe today. As a result, this media professional who came to the world of education after a long career in corporate communications, seems hell-bent on doing everything he can to help his school district and its students shine. He’s also working on ways to pass along his experience and knowledge to others who’d like to follow in his footsteps.
Last summer, Olsen, who turned 61 this year, was honored as a 2009 Cable’s Leaders in Learning Award winner for nearly a decade’s work as the media developer for the Dubuque Community School District in Iowa.
While the award zoomed in on one particular program in Olsen’s cavalcade of shows—a reality series called The Garden Organic—it is really a nod to Olsen’s role as the guiding force behind what may be the only K-12 school-based television station in the nation.
“What happened was a really forward-thinking school administrator and superintendent came to me through a mutual friend who’s in TV production,” Olsen recalls. “They said, ‘we don’t have a website, or video’”—this was 1999!—“‘and we’re not getting it done. We need someone with talent, drive, enthusiasm, and energy.’ The job sounded intriguing.”
With his get-it-done manner and a strong set of convictions, Olsen set about to convert the district’s print-heavy communications efforts, which included a limited video component, into a full-blown TV campaign. He made the case with local cable operator Mediacom to give the school district its own channel to showcase district-produced programming, he started building partnerships in the community, he began assembling an arsenal of professional-grade equipment, and he rounded up students to create and star in shows, man the cameras and lights, and generally run with their ideas. The initial result was a mix of school-related programming, administration presentations and messaging, student performances and events, and more.
Olsen’s first big “hit” came about five years ago with a show called Kids in the Kitchen, which won a coveted cable industry Beacon Award as Best New Series in 2007.
“All I had in mind was a program about survival in the kitchen,” he recalls. “I thought we would take kids and put them in a kitchen with a chef and teach them basic survival rules about how to cook well.”
In the process of developing the idea, however, Olsen was introduced to the owner of the local Hy-Vee Supermarket. Olsen explained the idea of the show, which led to a discussion about possibly filming in the store, using the store as a pantry and showcasing all of the branded merchandise. “He loved it. Within a year they had built a studio in the store—a $150,000 studio kitchen.
“We film January through March or April, once a week in the store,” he explains. “We use middle school, high school and elementary students as part of each cast. We have three casts with six members. The casts rotate each week, because that lessens the impact on the kids for their schoolwork.”
Following an intentionally unscripted approach, each week the kids arrive at 8 a.m. to learn what Executive Chef Jim Terry has picked as that week’s culinary challenge. (Recent episodes have covered everything from main courses to nutritious desserts.) And then over the next three hours the kids get to work, finding the ingredients, learning what is required to cook the meal, doing the cooking as well as the filming, and then eating the results of their efforts. Along the way, they interact with store personnel, a nutrition advisor, and supermarket suppliers, and they learn along as they teach the TV audience how to cook.
The show, which is shot in HD, goes on the air shortly after filming, in a steady rotation with other programs on the district’s cable channel. Each episode runs about a dozen times per day for a week. Episodes also are posted on the district’s website for download to a worldwide audience.
To get the shows on the air, Olsen and two freelance video producers do the actual editing and post-production work. That’s largely a pragmatic decision – the pace at which Olsen and company are generating episodes of the district’s 13 different shows simply precludes involving the kids in the exacting chores of editing and production. Besides, Olsen believes, the nuts and bolts of TV production are best learned (and currently best taught) in the technical/vocational track of high school.
For Olsen, the greatest learning opportunities for his students are lessons about collaboration and team decision making, visual storytelling, and communicating in the digital age.
“This is actually something that TV does beautifully—it is a collaborative affair,” he says. “Each child has a chance to make a contribution and do something that is greater than themselves. To be involved in something with other kids that they would probably never even speak to at school or even know, and then get thrown together and get a chance to collaborate and problem solve together on a television project. All of a sudden they become collaborators and friends. I see that dynamic happening all the time. It’s wonderful to see. I don’t know where else that happens other than the athletic field or the orchestra—where you have a chance to learn about yourself and learn how to be greater than yourself. That’s what energizes me on these projects.”
The Garden Organic—the show that earned Olsen his Cable’s Leaders in Learning Award – is an outgrowth of Kids in the Kitchen. Filmed during the summer as part of a camp-style gardening program, the weekly show challenges two dozen students of various ages to plant and grow a strictly organic garden – and then reap and eat what they’ve sown. The kids are guided by a dietician from the Hy-Vee Supermarket, an agriculturalist from the Iowa State University extension service, and a gardening expert from the local Ace Hardware chain.
Given the seasonal nature of the show, The Garden Organic episodes are conceived, shot, edited, and aired as quickly as possible—usually within 24 hours of filming.
“We’re dealing with seasonal changes, so every week we have new tips and tricks can be passed along,” Olsen says. “And there’s no script or cue cards – I don’t even have a shot list anymore. Everybody just rises to the occasion.”
Given the unpredictability of the subject matter, “rising to the occasion” is often required. “You’re going to have pests. We’ve had infestations. One time we had a drought and the corn didn’t even grow,” Olsen laughs. “We had a whole family of groundhogs eating us out of house and home. And then we have bumper crops. So, we celebrate the success and learn from the failures.”
Despite the seat-of-the-pants sound of things, the Dubuque Schools channel is a serious operation that requires a lot of support from many different players. Mediacom provides not only the channel access but also technical services, staff assistance, and equipment. (Olsen says Mediacom’s support is “incredible.”) Teachers and principals pitch in by helping select, schedule, and transport the student casts and crew members. Because of how effectively and cleverly Olsen showcases the students, teachers, and school achievements to the community, the school district and school board provide ongoing, enthusiastic support. The repertoire of programs on the air now ranges from student concerts and shows on floral arranging and interior design, to ceramics demonstrations, music lessons, even video book reports by students on Iowa authors.
Meanwhile most of the bills for shows are paid for just like in the real world of television broadcasting. “Most of the money for our operations now comes from sponsors and Mediacom, and from grant money that I apply for,” says Olsen. “So when you see The Garden Organic—it’s Ace Hardware and Hy-Vee that pays for it.”
The same is true for Doctor! Doctor!, another collaboration between Olsen and a local sponsor.
“Finley Hospital locally wanted a piece about pediatric medicine,” Olsen explains. “But I suggested a regular series: Why don’t we dress kids up like doctors and have them get to witness or participate in medical procedures that would be safe for them to do. They loved the idea, and we’ve been doing Doctor! Doctor! now for three years.
“The format is almost identical to other shows. They’ve learned how to do sutures, and laparoscopic surgery—though not on a real person,” Olsen laughs.
The students work with two real-life doctors and other from the hospital staff, giving viewers a window on the hospital and its services as well as an entertaining education in medical issues. And entertainment value is certainly part of the mix. One of the doctors loves building simulations to demonstrate various medical procedures. Unfortunately (or fortunately for viewers), the simulations often go awry, as when an angioplasty demonstration erupted in an explosion of Jell-o “blood” or a segment on abdominal surgery unleashed an overflow of gummi-worm “guts” (which one of the young “surgeons” promptly gobbled up on-camera).
“We could easily do these simulations with animation, but this is much more fun,” Olsen says. “And part of the lesson is that these things either work or don’t work. It’s the unexpected that makes the show interesting.”
Given the round-the-clock programming, the coordination of students and schedules, and the equipment, technical expertise, and money involved, how can another school district or school hope to replicate what Olsen and the Dubuque schools have achieved?
“The school district took a big chance hiring me to do this job. I was 52; I’d already worked for big corporations, Fortune 500 companies, small businesses, an educational media company, a data processing company. I had these creative jobs producing media, and I had an incredible resume,” Olsen says. “How many of those kinds of people are out there? Probably a lot!
“School districts need to look at this kind of position and bring in a real media developer—not just some guy who’s going to take over the A/V department. It’s about developing media that has a communication objective that matches the school district’s mission statement and its cultural goals and values. That’s crucial.”
While Olsen acknowledges the financial challenges facing many schools, he also notes that many schools are part-way to the goal already.
“A lot of school districts do have television-arts programs of one sort of other, and not just in a vocational curriculum model. They’re creating media-development positions in schools—that’s a teacher who is in charge of the computers, and that includes television because it’s done on those computers. It takes a tech savvy person, and that person can be the champion.
“Can that person also produce television shows like Dubuque does? Yes,” Olsen says firmly, adding a plug for his Fuzzy Thinking blog and other online resources he’s developed: “If they want to learn about it, tell them to log onto our website and all the instructions are there.”
For any educator and district to succeed in this role, Olsen says, “There are three legs to this stool. First, you have to have an individual who is leading, who’s ‘large and in charge,’ with a mandate from the school district supporting the effort. The second leg is having an administration that is completely supportive of the effort and understands the value of it. But the stool won’t stand without the third leg—which is that you have to have local access to television sets. You have to have a relationship with the Cox or Comcast or Mediacom in your community that will give you a channel that you can populate with your shows. With that, you get the automation system and a good vendor who knows how to do all these things. Then you’re good to go.”
Dubuque Community Schools Television
Gary Olsen’s Guide to Fuzzy Thinking
The Garden Organic
Kids in the Kitchen
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